Dec 21st, 2010 | | Aesthetics | 2 Comments

The Folly of Taste

The Man of Taste by William Hogarth

The Man of Taste

A recent feature in one of the glossy interiors magazines brought to mind the above cartoon and the sentiment associated with it.

In his print The Man of Taste William Hogarth attacks Alexander Pope, the Earl of Burlington and Burlington’s architect, William Kent. On a scaffolding the diminutive figure of Pope is seen vigorously whitewashing Burlington Gate and bespattering the passers-by, including the first Duke of Chandos, while Lord Burlington brings the whitewash. Pope had attacked the Duke in his Epistle to Lord Burlington on Taste.1

Perhaps a rather obscure thought process and a roundabout way of commenting on taste and excess, but it was this magazine article that reminded me of Pope’s summary of the Epistle when he wrote as follows.

The vanity of expense in people of wealth and quality. The abuse of the word taste,
That the first principle and foundation, in this as in everything else, is good sense.

I imagine that it can only be vanity, an excess of wealth and a lack of sense that would lead somebody to pay nearly £300 for a medium-sized tin of specially-mixed paint.

Now, I can understand that someone might commission colour-measurement in order to have a tin (or even several tins) of paint produced to match an existing decorative scheme – especially if it is for near-seamless touching in and therefore the prolonging of the life of that scheme (consider a room the size of the entrance hall at Syon House, for example). However, to have a tin of paint “mixed by hand using pigments ground in linseed oil” for this figure seems a bit much.

Why would one pay quite so much for this sort of product?

A typical 18th century front door and doorcase

In this little exercise let us assume that you wish to paint the front door of your 18th century town house and I am trying to provide the voice of reason.

You – “Surely such a paint might be regarded as ‘authentic’?”

Me – “By authentic do we mean 18th or early 19th century? Well hardly – this isn’t a lead paint, as that has been restricted to the owners of Grade I or II* listed properties for some years and the recent EU legislation on the levels of VOCs in paints has made the demise of lead paint almost inevitable.

In fact the main component of this paint seems to be titanium dioxide a white pigment that first saw major use in paints in the 1960s. At least the grinding of linseed oil and lead white formed a near perfect coating for plaster, iron and woodwork as the two combined to produce a lead soap. This was an outstandingly flexible and adhesive coating, which also had excellent opacity, or covering power. This effect does not take place with the inert pigment titanium dioxide.”

You – “But it is a little bit traditional isn’t it?”

Me – “Well, it does contain linseed oil if that’s what you mean by ‘traditional’, but its main constituent is of the late 20th century. Can that honestly be called ‘traditional’?”

You – “The flatter finish, however, is obviously much more sympathetic to a Georgian house.”

Me – “What makes you say that? How do you account for this passage on external painting from the most influential house-painting manual of the 18th century?”

Take Notice, That all simple Colours used in House Painting, appear much more beautiful and lustrous, when they appear as if glazed over with a Varnish, to which both the drying Oyl before-mentioned contributes very much, and also the Oyl of Turpentine, that the Painters use to help to make their Colours dry soon; but Experience teaches, that some good clear Turpentine dissolved in the aforesaid Oyl of Turpentine, before it be mix’d with the Oyl Colours, will make those Colours shine much when dry, and preserve their Beauty beyond most other Things, drying with an extream glassy Surface, more smooth than Oyl alone; and shall also better resist the Injuries of Air and Weather, provided too much be not put in.2

“Indeed, very often while examining the paint layers on external doors of the early 19th century one will find that a coat of (gloss) varnish had been applied over the paint in order to produce a shiny and more durable finish.”

A photomicrograph of several schemes of red-brown paint that had each been varnished for added protection

Here gloss varnish layers (the dark ones) can be seen above red brown paint

You – “A traditional paint always looks better than a modern paint”

Me – “Does it?”

An example of what can happen if linseed oil paint is applied over a conventional gloss paint

“Would you seriously suggest that this example of linseed oil applied over a modern gloss paint is a good look’?”

You – “Well the colours are so much more authentic, at least.”

Me – “Can you point me to a book of the period that tells us what colours were used on front doors? No, I thought not.”

An 18th century door displaying many coats of paint

Unless the build up of paint on an 18th century door looks like this the chances are that no original paint survives

You – “Ah yes, but paint analysis has been carried out.”

Me – “Was this merely a scrape or were samples taken and made into cross sections for microsopic analysis? How many decorative schemes were found? On an external door of the 1720s – if all the schemes had survived – I would normally expect to find 35 or so individual schemes and a build up approximately 3mm thick. It is exceptionally rare to find an early 18th century door that hasn’t been stripped at least once. Who knows what your scrape has revealed, but I suggest that it wasn’t early 18th century paint.”

At this stage the eco-credentials of the paint are usually brought out. A paint containing linseed oil must be more ‘friendly’ to the environment than a product of the ‘petro-chemical industry’. Of course, rather than White spirit (helpfully described as an “aliphatic hydrocarbon – a petroleum product, which you may or may not be happy to use“) these paints will often include turpentine distilled from the resinous sap of pine trees. That sounds much nicer doesn’t it?

However, what this doesn’t point out is that Turpentine oil poisoning is a well-known phenomenon in the paint industry,3 while white spirit has a fairly low acute toxicity by inhalation of the vapour, dermal (touching the skin) and oral routes (ingestion). Turpentine is far more pernicious. Occasionally one must accept that ‘natural’ is not necessarily better than ‘artificial’.

I could go on, but I don’t think that there’s any need.

If you want to show how sophisticated you are, may I respectfully suggest that you do so by concerning yourself more with the colour rather than the composition of the paint. The regulations imposed on the paint industry are now so tight that the handling properties and efficiency are in danger of being compromised (the subject of a future blog). The best paints produced by the bigger manufacturers nowadays are the result of many years of research and development. Please don’t think that someone making paint in a (no doubt very smart) garage can do better.

1Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. Published in December 1731.
2John Smith. The Art of Painting in Oil. 5th edition. 1723, 40.
3Turpentine Poisoning Symptoms
Prolonged or repeated skin contact with turpentine may cause allergic dermatitis and eczema, which includes reddened, itchy skin. Increased urination has been reported. Upon ingesting turpentine, there is a severe burning sensation in the throat. This sensation may occur simultaneously in the eyes, ears, lips, tongue or the oesophagus. Loss of vision and severe stomach pain are common symptoms, and the person may have blood in the urine, blood in the stool or blood in the vomit. If turpentine is excessively inhaled, then the lungs and airways will be affected. Breathing will become difficult, and a severe cough or swollen throat will exacerbate symptoms. The poison will affect the heart and blood, causing low blood pressure, bluish skin colour and collapse.

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Comments (2)

G.P.No Gravatar » 26. Apr, 2015

Good article, Patrick, and I do appreciate your points.

But it is tempting for us to paint our late c.19 sash windows in linseed oil paint during their overhaul because of the benefits we hear of – namely straightforward maintenance over the years and longevity.


Is it always folly to use these products?

PatrickNo Gravatar » 26. Apr, 2015

Linseed oil when combined with lead carbonate produces a near-perfect paint. However it does not combine in the same way with titanium dioxide, which is completely inert. I used to be an advocate of linseed oil paint in the 1980s but have learnt of the problems since. It’s fine if you are more interested in a ‘feel good’ factor but I would never now specify a linseed oil paint.